KU's Greatest Team?
The University of Kansas’s men’s basketball team sailed practically unscathed through its 1951-2 season. By the time the sixteen team-NCAA tournament was set to tip off, coach F.C. “Phog” Allen had won his 700th career game while his Jayhawks had compiled an 11-1 record in the Big Seven Conference and an overall record of 22-2. Their two losses had come in a four-day stretch to Kansas State and Oklahoma A&M (Oklahoma State), but since the two-game skid, KU had rallied off an impressive nine consecutive wins.
The 1952 NCAA tournament began as well as the Jayhawk faithful could have hoped, with Kansas knocking off Texas Christian and St. Louis in its first two contests. The second game saw KU’s 6’9” center Clyde Lovellette, one of the five starting seniors and a three-time All-America selection, set a University record by scoring 44 points. (His achievement stood until Wilt Chamberlain shattered it in his first game as a Jayhawk in 1956 when he scored 52 points.) Having won their region, the team prepared to travel to Seattle for the 1952 Final Four. (In 1952, only 16 teams received invitations to the tournament. The field has been expanded a number of times since then. Its current format of 64 teams dates from 1985.)
The first game of the Final Four pitted KU against Santa Clara University in a game that Kansas won by nineteen points. This victory set up a championship showdown between KU and St. John’s University of New York, which had knocked off Illinois in the other semi-final. It was the second time Kansas had made it to the NCAA final, but in its previous trip to college basketball’s most prestigious event in 1940, KU had fallen short. (The Jayhawks’ loss that year to Indiana by a score of 60-42 stood as the most lopsided result in an NCAA final for 20 years.) Thus for all of his other accomplishments, Allen had never won the tournament that he had helped to initiate. The 1952 team gave him a chance to rectify that shortcoming on his record. (Indeed he had begun recruiting in 1947 with an eye on winning the title in 1952 and taking his team to the Olympics.)
The first score of the final came on a Lovellette free throw, which might be considered significant for two reasons. First, it was apropos considering that sixty fouls were called during the game. Second, the Jayhawks maintained their lead for the remainder of the game. St. John’s geared its defense to stop Lovellette, but in so doing opened up Kansas perimeter players – Bob “Trigger” Kenney, Bill Lienhard, Charlie Hoag, Bill Hougland, and Dean Kelley – who sank easy baskets. Lovellette, who had been recruited from Terre Haute, Indiana, by Allen (in one of his first attempts to recruit nationally) with the promise that Allen would build a championship team around him, managed to score thirty three points despite the St. John’s defense. Kansas’s 41-27 halftime lead grew into a nineteen-point advantage after three quarters and ended in an 80-63 romp. The team’s victory brought to fruition Allen’s brash promise to his prize recruit four years earlier.
Kansas saw four of its five starters voted onto the all-tournament team when sportswriters placed both Lovellette and Kelley on the first team and put Charlie Hoag and Bill Lienhard on the second team. Lovellette’s numbers in the NCAA tournament proved particularly impressive. In the words of the University Daily Kansan, “Lovellette swept the NCAA record book clean” as he established new records for the most field goals, free throws, and points made by a single player in the tournament’s history. Not surprisingly, he was a near-unanimous selection for tournament MVP.
Back in Lawrence, students had huddled around radios to listen to the championship game. (Early in the third quarter, the Jayhawk faithful had to suffer through a ten-minute period in which the station had “technical line troubles” and had to interrupt the broadcast.) When the final buzzer sounded at about 1:30 AM Central Time, ecstatic students (including a “sizeable sprinkle of co-eds,” as the Kansan put it) threw coats over their pajamas and crowded into cars in search of spontaneous pep rallies. The Kansas City Star reported “about 100 cars were in the cavalcade, sometimes rolling three abreast on the main thoroughfares.” When the cavalcade had wound downtown, students gathered in the intersection of Massachusetts and Tenth where they sang KU songs and chanted “Rock Chalk, Jay Hawk, K.U.” amidst the popping of firecrackers and honking of horns.
The songs and yells quickly turned into chants of “No School Today,” and eventually the mob of students found its way to the house of Dr. Laurence Woodruff, KU dean of men. Woodruff was surrounded on his lawn by undergraduates demanding cancellation of the next day’s classes. The dean explained to the students that the Big Seven Conference did not allow him to “declare athletic holidays,” to which the students rained down “good-natured boos” upon him. Apparently his expression of hope that a “similar vigor would be displayed” later that day when the team returned to Lawrence eased any tension that still lingered in the air. When the procession of students arrived at the women’s dormitories, campus police “moved in to accelerate the dispersal.”
City and state officials joined KU students the following night when, after a delayed flight, the Jayhawks returned to Lawrence shortly after midnight. An ostentatious parade presided over by KU Chancellor Franklin Murphy saw 10,000 Kansas fans celebrate the team’s victory. A fire truck escorted the Jayhawks through the streets of Lawrence, and Lovellette was made an honorary Fire Chief. The KU faithful did not disperse until shortly before 3:00 AM.
KU’s appearance in the NCAA final gave the Jayhawks a chance to earn a spot for seven of the squad’s players on the US Olympic team that would be heading to Helsinki, Finland, the following summer. On March 31, KU achieved this goal with a victory over the NIT champion LaSalle University Explorers. But in early April, the Jayhawks lost to the AAU champion Peoria Caterpillars in the final round of the playoffs, which determined who would coach the US Olympic team. Allen, however, was selected as an assistant coach, and accompanied the Jayhawks to Finland where he watched seven of his players help the US win a gold medal in basketball.
Since its first NCAA championship, the University of Kansas has seen a number of excellent basketball teams. Wilt Chamberlain took the Jayhawks to the NCAA finals in 1957, Danny Manning and “the Miracles” won a second NCAA title for the University in 1988, the teams under the leadership of Roy Williams in the 1990s won an unprecedented number of games and Bill Self continued Big 12 dominance and won the National Championship in 2008 followed by the Final Four in 2012. However, none of KU’s basketball teams have achieved the dominance of that championship season enjoyed by the 1952 Jayhawks.
Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas